Architecture, or carpet bombing?

EMC buffet line

It’s been fascinating to watch the announcements come out of EMC World over the past week. They reflect a culmination of a strategy that we’ve all seen happen with accelerating pace at EMC over the past couple of years: let’s maybe call it winning by betting on everything.

EMC’s purchase of Isilon in 2010 represented an interesting diversification of their product portfolio.  Since then, the company has continued to expand the breadth of its offerings: ScaleIO, XtremeIO, and even new internal efforts such as VMware’s VSAN. EMC now has a sufficient number of distinct storage products that their technical leadership seems less focused on architecture, and more focused on trying to come up with taxonomies to try to explain and justify all the different types of storage that they sell!

In addition, EMC is aggressively experimenting with form factor: there is apparently an internal mandate to make all of their storage hardware available as a software only release: Isilon made announcements to this effect a few months ago, and now with Project Liberty to release the VNX stack as a software appliance.  Releasing software stacks for products that have been developed against proprietary hardware, with clustered controllers, nonvolatile write buffers, proprietary interconnects etcetera is not really a genuine move in the direction of a software defined data center. These releases aren’t going to work on third-party hardware without a bunch of development and QA that EMC is unlikely to have any incentive to do.  Instead, these are marketing announcements intended to paper over the fact that EMC is having trouble achieving real technical innovation on ossified platforms that were designed around assumptions about old storage hardware.

Moreover, at the same time that EMC’s Project Liberty declares freedom from hardware, portfolio diversification continues apace with the acquisition of DSSD, which is a hardware-based startup that is reported to be developing a custom chip for high-performance flash clusters for very IO-demanding environments.  In other words, investment in proprietary hardware offerings continues in parallel with software-defined storage roadmaps.

It has become clear this portfolio no longer reflects innovative technical leadership: EMC decided to outsource much of that part of its business at least five years ago.  Instead, this is the sign of a storage company whose technical direction has shifted from the office of the CTO to the VP of Marketing:  How else can you explain the likes of ViPR?  It’s storage middleware that, in addition to having an implementation that appears largely PowerPoint-based, has a sales pitch along the lines of, “Our offerings are so diverse and confused that we are now going to charge you extra for an additional layer of software to manage it all.” But not to worry, the marketing innovators behind this plan assure EMC’s customers that this will be very good and software-defined. Whatever that means.

Simply put, EMC’s storage business is very quickly starting to show two really significant problems that I would be worried about as a customer:

First, the increasing overlap of product lines.  It is absolutely not the case, as was suggested at EMC World last week, that a portfolio must necessarily be this broad to have the right tool for every customer need. In fact, EMC’s products increasingly compete with one another. It is only natural for a few of these product lines to shrivel up and die and it wont be because of customer choice.

Second, there is no indication whatsoever that the company is trying to make life easier for their customers. Offering ten products and then laying complexity on top to glue it all together is not ease of use.  It’s additional effort, training, and maintenance for the storage admin. It means deeper tentacles in your IT environment.  And it means more entrenchment for EMC.

And so here’s my perspective on the week: as a relatively new storage company, it is challenging to compete with the breadth of announcements that we’ve seen at EMC world.  Compared to the gorilla that took over Vegas this month, Coho is a pretty darned small fish.  However, the conversations that I’ve been having with customers (many of them EMC customers) over the past year have echoed some of the sentiment that I’m trying to articulate above. While, as the adage goes, “you don’t get fired for buying big iron,” I hear more and more frequent resonance for the idea that people want a clean slate.  They want storage that is designed with purpose, and an offering that is technically coherent and simple from end to end. They want a storage product that solves their problems, saves them money, and makes their lives easier.

So EMC, keep on expanding that portfolio. Here’s to an even bigger, and even more confusing message next year. I’ll be talking to a lot more of your customers between now and then.

Interested in learning more about Coho and our products? Check out ESG’s report on our initial product offering, or our slightly gorier technical white paper that describes the system in a bit more detail.

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